Do Readers Need A History Lesson?
When we think of fantasy fiction, we usually think of exotically detailed worlds, filled with developed cultures and unique customs. If you’re anything like me, the idea of writing a book in the fantasy genre is overwhelming, not only because of the detail needed to create a world like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but also in how to present that world to the reader. In reading fantasy novels there are always the books that utilize the first fifty to one hundred pages introducing the world (like Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring), but is that the norm? Is an in-depth introduction even necessary? If we look at Pullman’s The Golden Compass, it would seem that there is more than one way of introducing a world, and not all of them give the reader a flashback to their high school history class.
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen” is Pullman’s first sentence in The Golden Compass, and drops readers right into Lyra’s Oxford, with no clue as to what a daemon is or what this world is like (3). In fact, readers do not learn anything more about daemons until later on in the book; and even then only small bits of information. This seems strange, considering the turmoil in Lyra’s Oxford seems to center upon daemons and children, yet it’s not entirely clear what the daemons are. This could have been risky on Pullman’s part, yet from the very beginning the novel progresses at a swift pace. The reader is submerged in his world, even without it being fully explained. So, how does this work for Pullman?
First, our protagonist is a young girl who has lived in this world her entire life. Our view of the world is also Lyra’s view of the world. We are only exposed to the things in the world that involve and interact with Lyra. We also understand what she understands, which leads to a very basic knowledge of the religion, government, and customs of this strange Oxford. A great example of this is in the first chapter, where we are introduced to the mysterious Dust. Pullman writes, “ ‘It’s coming down,’ said Lord Asriel, ‘but it isn’t light. It’s Dust.’ Something in the way he said it made Lyra imagine dust with a capital letter, as if this wasn’t ordinary dust. The reaction of the Scholars confirmed her feeling,” is the first exposure to the reason for the kidnapping of poor children (19). There is no further explanation to this Dust until Lyra overhears it, or someone tells her—and by association, us. This method of introducing the world seems authentic, much like how we discovered our own worlds as children. Our eyes and our ears are Lyra and the way she perceives the world, so it fits that we only know what she knows, and only see the world as she does. As Lyra learns we also learn, keeping us on the edge of our seats exploring a fictional universe where parallel worlds exist, and armored polar bears talk.
A second reason this seems to work for Pullman is that when he drops us into his world it feels fully formed from the beginning. “[Lyra] had lived most of her life in the College, but had never seen the Retiring Room before: only Scholars and their guests were allowed in here, and never females” describes Pullman, introducing us to Jordan College (4). By giving us rules for the use of the Retiring Room, we are left with a sense of history, and an idea that this institution has been around for a long time. It also appears to give us an idea of the way people are viewed in Lyra’s Oxford, with esteemed positions being only for men. Instead of giving readers an entire history of this world, he inserts descriptions that let us know the way this world works. Because of that description from Lyra’s eyes, we can see that this world is patriarchal and bound by tradition (which makes sense, when we realize that their world is ruled by the Magisterium- the church).
After looking at only three quotes from the text (which are all from the first nineteen pages), we have learned two major aspects of Lyra’s world, daemons and that the world is patriarchal. This seems fairly impressive, considering we did not have to read fifty-plus pages setting up the world we have just stepped into. It seems as though it was not necessary for Pullman to give readers an in-depth introduction into his world, since he needed to also give Lyra the information, as well. It may be that this is only crucial for a work like Pullman’s, where the protagonist needs to learn about their own world in order to grow. If you have read Eragon by Christopher Paolini, the same type of world building is seen in that series. Eragon, the protagonist, creates the world for the reader through his journeys. Even though a map is provided in the beginning of the book, the readers knowledge of the world only expands as Eragon’s knowledge about his world expands.
Literature of all types pose questions that deal with craft; questions such as, what makes a text work, and what are techniques used to make a world? Concerning the world of fantasy fiction, the question here is if it is necessary to give an in-depth introduction to the created world. Pullman seems to have created a world that the reader does not need to be given a history lesson. And yet there might be a certain type of wisdom that other fantasy writers have internalized: sometimes, it really is necessary to learn to be able to understand a topic fully. Which method of revealing the world to the reader works better?
Happy Reading!! -Ashley Weinheimer
Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass. New York: Random House Children’s Books, 1995. Print.